Stephen King has been very hit-or-miss with me over the last decade or so (Lisey's Story and Song of Susannah were both books where nothing really happened), but it hasn't stopped me from reading his books. He's still great at telling a story, and even when nothing much is happening in said story, it's compelling. Luckily, 11/22/63 and now Joyland are two books where he seems to be finding his knack again.
In Joyland, Devin Jones is a college kid who's had his heart broken and spends a little over a summer working at a beachside amusement park in North Carolina called Joyland. While there, he hears a story about a ghost haunting the haunted house ride, gets a premonition from the park's resident fortune teller, and meets a mother and son who he sees every morning on his walk to the park. All of it comes together in standard King style, with deft characterization and storytelling keeping it all moving forward.
The novel touches on themes of love and loss, not just in Devin's life, but also in those he meets along the way. The most obvious one his Devin getting over his ex-girlfriend, but there's also the story of the woman who lost her life in the ride. Scattered beside all that is Devin and his friends going their separate ways, and Devin growing close to the mother and son while later seeing them drift away. I think it was those asides in the story that kept me most interested, enough so that the ghost story wound up being more of a subplot than the rest.
Like The Colorado Kid, King's other book in the Hard Case Crime series of hardboiled mysteries, Joyland doesn't really come off as a hardboiled mystery novel. Sure, there's a mystery, but King's style isn't really sufficient for telling hardboiled stories. As King himself said, the story is about crime, a mystery, and ghosts, but the mystery winds up being more of an aside than anything else. Like the way he used the Kennedy assassination as a backdrop to a love story in 11/22/63, here the mystery is the vehicle that drives Devin's relationships. It's not bad (as I mentioned, I think this is King coming back to what made him such a great writer in the 1980s), but it's not fitting for the type of book it's advertised to be. I don't think this is a problem, necessarily -- I think King fans will read it regardless, and I don't know how many folks reading it would be expecting it to be a hardboiled mystery novel first -- but it's definitely more about using King as a method to sell the line than the line selling the book.
My favorite part of the novel, though, is that it appears to exist outside the Dark Tower universe that King feels compelled to use in all of his recent novels. Lately, that connection has been tenuous and felt forced, and it was refreshing to read one of his stories that wasn't supposed to drive the Dark Tower. He still uses some of the usual King tropes -- there's not just a psychic kid, but also a psychic carny worker -- but he does it well enough that it's hard to complain. At the very least, he makes that psychic kid such an integral part of the story that it's hard to see him as anything but. I'm hoping King keeps this string up, but I have to admit that a sequel to The Shining puts me in mind of how disappointed I was in Black House. Ah, well.